Angels in America: Revisited

Leaving Angels in America, I tingle. I am covered in tears and exhaling joy. The time has passed quickly. None of it has felt laborious. And I carry with me the feeling of religious devotion from my childhood. Giving over to a spiritual practice, my heart is lifted. It's the church of Tony Kushner and I feel blessed.
Beth Malone and Andrew Garfield with Shadows (Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Marianne Elliott’s production of Angels in America which transferred from London [My London review] has become stronger and increasingly potent with this most recent outing on Broadway. Elliott has implemented further revisions by Tony Kushner in Part 2, is employing a more intimate space, and has made helpful directorial adjustments. Moreover, these actors have been living with these characters longer. Elliott directs the play with a tinge of weighty self-seriousness at times but the text still manages to be buoyant. Certain design elements come across as heavy-handed and unnecessary (I still hate the patchwork, revolve-based design for Part 1), but these choices don’t sink the show.

This production moves with greater fleetness than the London production, digs into the personal relationships in a new way, and delivers a message of hope with open arms. In this iteration, the tension between self-interest/individualism and community loomed larger to me than in other productions.

The play tracks the AIDS diagnosis of Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) which causes his partner Louis (James McArdle) to leave him, criss-crossed with the unraveling marriage of Mormons, Harper (Denise Gough) an agoraphobic, valium addict and her closeted husband, Joe Pitt (Lee Pace).  Laid on top of this is the story of Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane), the power broker and attorney, who tries to convince Joe to help him fix some of his legal problems. Cohn is also living with AIDS. In the mix is Joe’s uptight Mormon mother Hannah and Prior’s ex-lover and drag partner, Belize, now a nurse on the front lines of the AIDS battle.

Set in the Reagan 80’s against the increasing AIDS epidemic and a public who cared so little about the decimated gay community, Kushner’s play may be rooted in the specifics of that time but the issues it raises--political, cultural, racial, and sexual--remain unsettled and are still eating at the core of our identity as Americans.  The battles staged in it play today as if they are for America’s soul--will we celebrate the individual and preserve a self-serving status quo or will we embrace the collective and progress. And in this instance, a queer collective at that.

The politics are played out through the characters and their relationships.  Prior’s journey has always been one about the human need to move and live, even in the face of tragedy, pain, and illness. In contrast, Louis is in retreat, trying to escape Prior’s disease and inevitable death. Instead of staying to watch the man he loves die, he runs toward a brief fling of self-interest. While Louis is romping in his “ideological leather bar” with Joe, this taste of selfish individualism is attractive to him for a time.  

McArdle lives in the body of Louis more naturally now. He has nailed down his American accent and connected with Louis’s neurotic tendencies. But most of all McArdle is present--live in every moment. After watching him perform this role twice in short order, it’s exciting to see how each time he’s making new and immediate choices. It’s easy to forget the Glaswegian actor behind the stubble and get caught up in the throes of this anguished Jewish office temp.

McArdle’s Louis is not sure of anything.  His ambivalence comes out everywhere. He is hardly able to cross his legs without undoing them immediately. He puts on a coat and takes it off and puts it on again, all within a matter of seconds.  This mirrors the text. Louis argues himself in and out of his own opinions. He needs no foil. He is his own worst enemy.

James McArdle & Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg) 
Kushner makes Louis irritating, bloviating, and flawed, and McArdle makes him deeply human.  He softens the edges of this character who has screwed everything up. And even if he ends up exactly where he has to, McArdle’s Louis sees his wrongs and tries to fumble his way back to some sense of redemption.

McArdle’s Louis is hardly ever still or at rest in the play. In the KS scene, he slides away from Garfield, who then creeps closer. Back and forth they edge. In one scene, Louis is arguing with Joe in the bedroom but Louis needs the toilet and starts to brush his teeth mid-scene and must move between rooms, “to spit.” He is a whirlwind of frenetic energy, self-doubt, and recrimination, while Joe remains stoic and poised in the face of this Louis maelstrom.  When Louis is trying to seduce Joe, he’s fingering the edges of his sweater cuffs and kicking up his heel. The vicissitudes of his frenzied brain come out in these deliberate movements.

But there is a calm that washes over McArdle’s Louis in certain moments with Prior. When Louis returns to Prior, McArdle stands solidly and asks to come back. There is not a moment of fidgeting or doubt for him now.

Louis and Prior don’t get a lot of scenes together before their relationship breaks. We only see one evening of their true affection mostly outside the gaze of illness. As they are lolling about in bed, Prior is pressed up against Louis’s chest as Louis pontificates on justice. From under the bedsheets comes Prior's giggle. Prior pinches Louis’s nipple and maybe slides a hand up his inner thigh and we see McArdle’s Louis swell with happiness, sexual passion. He clutches Prior closer.

Even after they’ve gotten worked up over Prior’s illness in this scene, Louis grabs a hold of Prior and lifts him to his lap as they cling to each other. The lights go down on them when another scene begins, but in the dark they nuzzle and kiss. They get into bed together, intertwined. Later in the play, there is a fantasy sequence where Louis and Prior dance to “Moon River.”  Their behavior in this mystical moment of pretend mirrors the reality of that bedroom scene--they are nose to nose, intimate. McArdle nibbles Garfield’s lip as they kiss.

For these scenes, Garfield and McArdle give us the couple we’ll never really get to know. The affectionate, loving, passionate pair. Prior the caretaker. Louis the thinker (or over-thinker). Prior the steady. Louis the probing.

In spending all this time with these actors in such a mammoth work, you can appreciate that there’s careful work being done even in the most fleeting of moments (even in the dark).
Andrew Garfield (Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Garfield has toned down his performance significantly from London. He’s no longer the performative Prior, always on. He’s internalizing Prior’s femininity and Prior’s drag comes on and off. He’s employing a lightness to his voice which carries the character most of the way. At times, he lets loose a mellifluous laugh that wriggles out of him like birdsong. Where he cannot lift himself up, this laugh carries him. It is his armor and his defense. Garfield's subtler approach allows his descent into illness to be less zany and more gripping--it’s an ordeal which squeezes breath, tears, screams, laughs, and fury out of him.

Garfield has a transparent fragility to him on stage .  His performance in Death of a Salesman was shattering.  But his Prior is no less so.  He bears the physical comedy, the dance movement with the Angel, the big outbursts, and the delicate moments of relational intimacy admirably and authentically.

Lee Pace, as the newest member of the cast, brings a wholly different energy to Joe than Russell Tovey.  Tovey’s Joe had a terrifying rage, particularly as it was directed at Harper. With Pace, his Joe softens towards Harper.
Denise Gough & Lee Pace (Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Pace is doing some nuanced work on Joe’s smaller reactions but he can be repetitive in his larger gestures. When Harper says she’s pregnant, the smallest flash of happiness crosses Pace’s face, and then disappears, and then is replaced with confusion and pain when he does not know what the truth is. When Harper threatens to call Joe out on who he is, Pace is stricken with fear which then morphs seamlessly into anger. Though, he tends to be a little chest-thumpy once he reaches those angry peaks. Pace towers over his co-stars. When he needs to he can use this physical height as leverage. The charming, affable Joe slips away. And the hard-nosed lawyer appears (or perhaps shades of Joe’s distant, angry father).

For all his self-doubt in his personal life, Joe is confident (and strident) in his political and ideological beliefs. It's the architecture which has always held him up. We see more of that Joe with Pace. Pace’s Joe is using his assuredness as a weapon or a defense depending on the context. Joe speaks with his authoritative voice with Louis to the point of browbeating.

Louis is both drawn in by and repulsed by Joe’s extreme confidence (bordering on possessiveness). For someone so unsure, there’s an attraction to all this presumed clarity but even Louis catches himself before falling for it. There are flickers of recognition of this tension across McArdle’s face. The pleasure in the escape is in constant conflict with his self-awareness.
McArdle & Pace (Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Tovey approached Joe’s relationship with Louis with begging or neediness. Pace has a different energy. There’s a thawing warmth and growth when he starts to connect with Louis.

Just for a second, he checks out Louis’s ass when they first meet.  It’s the kind of blink and you miss it reaction, but his Joe has learned to cover like this his whole life. Pace shows us a Joe who at first is so afraid of physical touch, he stands far from Louis in their first encounter. Louis sidles up to him on the courthouse steps as they eat lunch and Pace tenses and bears it.

But once Louis seduces him, Joe dives in. He is a tingling mass of desires unleashed but without the skills to process anything he is feeling. He’s learning to open himself up and it’s with tentative steps he’s progressing to his unabashed declaration of love--which comes too soon and is too much since there is no foundation of real connection or compatibility between Joe and Louis.  

Joe’s gushing confession to Louis comes to a head in the beach scene which is now staged differently than it was in London.  Pace removes his clothes completely and then runs across the stage, back and forth, leaping, explosive, fully naked and visible to the audience. Joe’s vulnerability in this way is agonizing and the risk he takes feels greater--and the defeat of such so much more painful. He begs for Louis to see their relationship as he does. But we all know that will never happen. That relationship does not really exist.
Gough (Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

With a new stage husband to play off, Gough in response is bigger and less brittle than she was in London.  She is devastated and beaten-down by her failing marriage, but now she is fighting to have a life. In London, she seemed like a ghost haunting her own existence.  When Tovey was so brutal towards her, Gough’s Harper seemed smaller and slight in the face of this anger that bordered on abuse. Because Pace’s Joe is affectionate, Gough in turn reacts to Pace with a brightness. She’s suffering and her pain is closer to the surface.  But you can see her engage with it and her struggle is an active one. When Gough shivers on stage from cold and sadness, you worry she might never be able to stop.

Nathan Lane may be Broadway royalty, but for an actor who can be larger-than-life his Roy consistently avoids the showy. He’s funny when called for and egomaniacal where necessary. He’s drunk, leering, scary, and dying.  He makes each moment authentic. It’s not that he’s not fun to watch--he is--but he’s not breaking the power of the ensemble either. For a dazzling role like this to be played with balance and restraint is a testament to his skills.
Nathan Lane (Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

So many of the moments of hallucination, dreams, and otherworldly encounters in the play are left open-ended--did they or didn’t they happen.  But the production drops the pretense in one of Lane’s scenes. Roy has been animatedly laughing and talking with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. She then leaves the room. The lighting shifts and Roy’s colorful self disappears. He’s the pallid, sick Roy, suffering from a hand tremor he cannot control who cannot pretend that he’s unchanged by this illness. He continues speaking to the now-absent Ethel and laments “That’s America. It’s just no country for the infirm.” Turning from the laughs to this solemn pronouncement on a dime, this production handles these shifts well.

The secondary characters offer a mix of results. Susan Brown is a taciturn Mrs. Pitt and she and Garfield often feel like they are tripping on each other in scenes. Her accent and demeanor never quite feel totally American. But she’s a killer Ethel Rosenberg who sits in watch over Roy Cohn and even ministers to him in his death. Amanda Lawrence is a dynamic Angel--funny, feisty, and eventually furious. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett fights back against Louis and Louis’s privileged, circumscribed world and makes us pay attention to the play’s whiteness and its depictions of power and marginalization (even if the play only goes so far here). But I’ve seen this role turn into caricature and Stewart-Jarrett resists that. His accent can be slippery but he and Garfield have a sweetness to their friendship (an ET finger boop moment is darling). Stewart-Jarrett is a fearsome presence in his fights with Roy.
Garfield and Stewart-Jarrett (Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Overall, the entire endeavor feels more cohesive than in London. Elliott has picked up the pace and made transitions smoother (particularly in Part 1). She’s centered more scenes physically on stage and used a vertical line rather than horizontal to create associations which is stronger. The overlapping couple scenes still don’t ring with complete resonance.  They can get high-pitched, stilted, and flat.

Her use of the “Shadows” to move furniture on and off has not unfortunately abated. With cryptic lighting throughout perhaps the audience won’t notice the Shadows as much this time around. But the dim approach to lighting design strangely also impacts the actors and frequently they seem off their marks, with odd shadows cast on them, or just underlit.  There are scenes where actors are set on stage and in underlit colorful lights while another scene is happening (Harper sleeping in her living room chair, Prior and Louis in bed, while it's fully bright on Roy at the doctor’s) but I wondered if anyone could see them from the back of the theater.

The overwrought music I disliked before has not been cut.  Worse, the loud blasts make the quiet scenes that follow even harder to hear.  

Yet despite these complaints, after 7.5 hours I’m filled with the possibility of what theater can be. It’s why I come to see this play and return to it over and over.

I felt a strange alienation when I saw it in London--this American epic being interpreted and appreciated by a foreign audience. Though the cast remains mostly the same, the play which is so rooted in New York, feels like it’s finally home. And I’m so relieved. These words have a talismanic power here they didn’t have in London.
By Bethesda Fountain (Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Maybe the animating life of the play is larger in New York because of the New York specificity. I always think of the line: “My New Deal Pinko parents in Schenectady would never forgive me, they’re already so disappointed, ‘He’s a fag, he’s an office temp. And now look he’s saying Kaddish for Roy Cohn.’” It is rooted in something very culturally Jewish and geographically specific. And no matter what, it can be a funny line. But the knowing laughs go deeper in New York. You have an audience who gets the joke about Louis Ironson screwing up the Kaddish with the Kiddush while he’s still reciting it in Hebrew.

Maybe it is the American openness to reaction (some might complain, overzealous nature of Americans to clap, react, emote). We are boisterous and the laughs build when others around you join in.  Certain lines get applause of their own.

Maybe it’s that we are all in this together. We greet strangers as we return from our dinner break. We side-eye the same misbehaving miscreants.  We all grumble over the strange, ill-timed outbursts of audience applause when scenes are not over and we don’t know what those few are clapping at (we think Andrew Garfield but we can never be sure). I am a part of this one-day, fleeting community simply by all of us living this play together. This escape into this show is hard to shake off. So much so that I feel betrayed walking by the theater on days I don’t have a ticket. They’re having the party without me.  How could they!

And maybe it’s me. Maybe my heart thumping in time with the text is just what I need now.  It is a fountain of youth--I was introduced to the play as a teen and I am with my younger self whenever I am watching it, wide-eyed and expectant. The world is still hard to navigate. The choices the play presents still complex. I want so much for the characters to find peace, love, and happiness because it is what I want for myself.

And maybe it's that I remember these days, when touching someone sick brought out people’s fears. When AIDS loomed over our sexual awakenings. I recall spending a day with a friend waiting for his test results, avoiding the subject, drinking, wandering the streets, waiting. And I think about the people we have lost and are still losing.

And maybe at a time where selfish individualism in American politics is run amok and an attitude of self-preservation looms loud and large, anything that asks for an embracing, queer community to gather, share, mourn, and celebrate feels critical. The call to be citizens is still a necessary one. And my fight is renewed to keep pressing on against a world pushing back against this.

There is so much work still to do. And we need to do it. Together.